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Kerry Lets Himself Get Swift-Boated

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Kerry with crewmates during the war

Kerry with crewmates during the war

It’s impossible to know for sure that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth doomed John Kerry’s 2004 campaign for president. Kerry told me as much a couple of years later, but losing campaigns always generate multiple recriminations. The 2004 campaign was conducted in the shadow of 9/11, so the residual fear, stoked by Republicans, probably would have propelled George W. Bush to reelection anyway. But there’s no doubt the Swift-Boating (it became an instant verb) did plenty of damage both to Kerry and to the process. While the accounts of the anti-Kerry veterans were full of lies, they penetrated the consciousness of voters before news organizations could complete investigations and report the facts. The Kerry campaign chose to respond to the charges with surrogates rather than the candidate himself—a terrible tactical error. Instead of disappearing, as the campaign hoped, the story snowballed amid the controversy. It fit the “he said/she said” adversarialism of cable news, which was just then coming to set the pace for political debate. The episode was final proof that in the polarized media world, both sides have not only their own opinions but their own facts. It also testified to the enduring power of the Vietnam War to shape American politics. Instead of dealing with critical issues, the campaign was derailed for weeks by a story from four decades earlier—more evidence that past is always prologue in American history. As he weighed his own presidential campaign in 2006, Barack Obama told me that it was “time to stop relitigating the 1960s.” But even now in the debates over Afghanistan, Vietnam lives.

Alter is a NEWSWEEK columnist and the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. Follow him on Twitter.

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